Open Thread: February 15th Camp Notes

The second day of Spring Training is in the books. The pitchers and catchers did what they do today and the position players aren’t due to arrive until Saturday. No news is good news. Here are today’s notes from camp:

Here is the open thread for the evening. Both the Knicks and Nets are playing, plus you’ve got some college hoops as well. Talk about any those games, the day in Spring Training, or anything here as long as it isn’t politics or religion. Thanks in advance.

The spring rotation competition could have a domino effect on the Opening Day bullpen

Luis and Luis. (Presswire)
Luis and Luis. (Presswire)

Over these next seven weeks or so, the Yankees are going to hold a massive rotation competition in Spring Training. They’ve held fake competitions in previous springs, we’ve seen plenty of those, but this one is legit. There are two spots open behind Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, and Michael Pineda, and no shortage of candidates. Here’s the approximate fourth and fifth starter pecking order:

  1. Luis Severino
  2. Luis Cessa
  3. Chad Green
  4. Bryan Mitchell
  5. Dietrich Enns
  6. Jordan Montgomery
  7. Chance Adams

The Yankees insist Adam Warren will compete for a rotation spot as well, though I have a hard time believing the soon-to-be 30-year-old Warren will be given a rotation spot over a kid in his mid-20s, especially since Warren is so valuable in relief. I suppose Ronald Herrera could be given the chance to win a rotation spot, though it seems unlikely. Generally speaking, that’s the pecking order.

This rotation competition comes with two questions. One, who wins the two spots? That’s the obvious question. And two, what happens to the guys who don’t win the rotation spots? In cases of Adams, Enns, and Montgomery (and Herrera), the answer is clear. They’ll go to Triple-A Scranton to bide their time. Warren, if he is truly involved in this rotation competition, will slide back in to the bullpen.

The top four guys is where it gets murky. It’s easy to assume the two competition losers will go to Triple-A — all four of them have options remaining (Mitchell has one, the other three have two) — and simply wait their turn. The Yankees aren’t going to get through the season using only five starters, so it’s only a matter of time until the two competition losers wind up in the rotation. That’s baseball.

That said, the answer is never that simple. The Yankees also have two open bullpen spots at the moment, and we can’t rule out the two rotation competition losers winding up in the Opening Day bullpen. They’ve done this before. The Yankees did it in 2014 with Warren, David Phelps, and Vidal Nuno, and they did it last year with Cessa. They would have done it with Mitchell too last year had he not suffered that fluke toe injury at the end of camp.

Let’s say, for argument’s sake, Severino and Cessa win the fourth and fifth starter’s spots. Severino has the most upside of the rotation candidates and Cessa had the most success as a starter last year. Sound good? Doesn’t matter, really, it’s only a hypothetical. In that case, the Opening Day pitching staff could shake out like so:

Rotation: Tanaka, Sabathia, Pineda, Severino, Cessa
Bullpen: Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, Tyler Clippard, Tommy Layne, Warren, Green, Mitchell

If the Yankees believe Green and Mitchell give them a better chance to win than other bullpen candidates like, say, Jonathan Holder and Ben Heller, that very well could be the Opening Day pitching staff. I know I’m not alone in thinking the rotation competition losers could win up in the bullpen. Bryan Hoch suggested something similar recently as well.

Now, is this a good idea, using the sixth and seventh starters as relievers? Maybe, maybe not. I’m not sure there’s a correct answer. Montgomery, Enns, Adams, and Herrera give the Yankees some decent Triple-A pitching depth should they need an emergency spot starter. Also, as we saw with Cessa last year, the team could always send one of the starters they stick in the bullpen back down to Triple-A to get stretched out.

One thing to keep in mind: the Yankees are short on innings eaters. Last season AL starters averaged 5.69 innings per start. Tanaka averaged 6.43 innings per start, 12th highest in baseball. Sabathia was at 5.97 innings per start but noticeably lost effectiveness after 80-85 pitches or so. Pineda averaged 5.48 innings per start, third lowest among the 71 pitchers who qualified for the ERA title. Joe Girardi doesn’t trust him and had an increasingly short leash late in the season.

The two kids, whether it’s Severino and Cessa or Green and Mitchell, probably won’t be counted on to chew up innings and save the bullpen. We saw Girardi pull Cessa after five or six innings several times last season even though his pitch count was manageable, and there are reasons for that. He didn’t want him to go through the lineup a third time, because that’s usually when the opposing team does the most damage against the starter.

With Tanaka the only reliable source of innings, having multiple relievers who can throw multiple innings wouldn’t be such a bad idea. The Yankees don’t have to employ a true tandem starter system, though on the days the starter goes five and fly, it’ll be nice to have a reliever who can go three innings, if necessary. Putting the two rotation competition losers in the bullpen would give the team those multiple long men to help cover a rotation not known to pitch deep into games.

Opening Day is still nearly two months away (groan) and a lot can and will change between now and then. With any luck, everyone will get through camp healthy and the Yankees will be in position to decide whether to send their extraneous starters to Triple-A or use them in relief. That would be a nice problem to have. The rotation competition will be a big story this spring, and there’s a pretty good chance it will overlap with the bullpen competition as well.

Prospect Profile: Domingo Acevedo

(MiLB.com)
(MiLB.com)

Domingo Acevedo | RHP

Background

Acevedo was signed out of the Dominican Republic in November of 2012 for the bargain bin price of $7,500. And that price isn’t the most suspect aspect of the signing, either. Rather, what stands out the most is that Acevedo signed at roughly 18-and-a-half years old, two-plus years after we see most players signed via international free agency. There is precious little information out there as to why he was signed so late, comparatively speaking, but the simplest explanation is often the best – meaning that Acevedo simply wasn’t viewed as much of a prospect between when he first became eligible back in 2010 and when he put pen to paper. To wit, he never cracked Baseball America’s top-thirty international prospects, nor was he mentioned in any of their write-ups prior to making his professional debut.

Update – Commenter Chip found out that Acevedo did not start playing baseball until he was 16 due to family commitments. I suppose that means that I was technically correct in saying that he wasn’t much of a prospect prior to signing, if only because he wasn’t an actual baseball player for all that long.

Pro Career

Acevedo was already 19 by the time he made his professional debut in 2013, when he spent the entirety of the season in the Dominican Summer League. He was a few months older than the average player at the level as a result, and he performed like a men among boys. Acevedo allowed a 2.63 ERA (1.95 FIP) in 41.0 IP, with a 24.2% strikeout rate against just 6.2% walks.

The Yankees sent Acevedo to the Gulf Coast League in 2014, but it was essentially a lost season. He tossed just 15.1 IP across five starts due to a variety of arm issues (which may be best described as dead arm), missing the better part of seven weeks after the calendar turned to July. There were reasons for optimism nevertheless, as he hit triple-digits in that limited action, and posted a 31.3% strikeout rate and 2.14 FIP.

It was on the heels of the abbreviated 2014 season that Acevedo first started appearing in the consciousness of Yankees fans and writers, and it’s not difficult to see why; after all, he was a towering 6’7″ figure that could throw a baseball 100-plus MPH. That’s enough to, at the very least, pique one’s curiosity.

Acevedo was assigned to Low-A Charleston to open 2015, and made one appearance before injuries struck again. It was a simple matter of blisters, luckily, and he was back in action on June 24, albeit for Short Season State Island. He spent the remainder of the 2015 regular season at that level, pitching to a 1.69 ERA (2.85 FIP) in 48.0 IP, to go along with 27.2% strikeouts and 7.7% walks.

Acevedo was sent to the Arizona Fall League to make up for lost time, and continue to impress in yet another small sample size. He tossed 12.0 IP across seven appearances (all in relief), allowing a 2.25 ERA in the hitter-friendly environs of the desert and striking out 22.0% of batters faced.

For all of this, Baseball America named him the third-best prospect in the New York-Penn League following the 2015 season, behind Andrew Benintendi of the Red Sox and Victor Robles of the Nationals.

Acevedo headed back to Charleston to open 2016, where he continued to dominate. He made eight starts at the level, pitching to the following line: 42.2 IP, 34 H, 7 BB, 48 K, 1.90 ERA, 2.02 FIP, 25.0 K-BB%. The Yankees promoted him to High-A Tampa in June, and it was more of the same – plenty of strikeouts (26.0%), low walk totals (7.2%), and solid run prevention (3.22 ERA) in 50.1 IP.

All told, Acevedo finished the 2016 season with a 2.61 ERA, 45.3 GB%, 5.9 BB%, and 27.2 K% in a career-high 93.0 IP. The only blemish on the season was his continued injury woes, as he missed time with leg and back maladies.

Scouting Report

When Acevedo first signed, he was about 6’6″ and a slender 190 pounds. He now checks in at 6’7″ and around 220 pounds (depending on the source – estimates range from 200 to 240), having filled out his gigantic frame with a fair bit of muscle. And, as one would expect from a pitcher of his size, he sits in the 95 to 97 MPH range with his fastball, and regularly flirts with the 100 MPH mark. Some scouts have clocked him as high as 103 on the gun, which elicits all sorts of strange feelings.

The fastball can run a bit true when Acevedo is trying to hit his spots, but it usually has a bit of late run to it. He controls the pitch quite well on the whole, pounding the strikezone and challenging hitters at the letters. Regardless, it’s a true plus-plus pitch that several scouts have thrown an 80-grade on.

Acevedo’s best secondary pitch is his mid-80s change-up, which has very good separation from his fastball and a bit of sink. He throws it for strikes with ease, and manages to pick up swings and misses, as well. It’s a solid average offering that flashes plus when he’s on the top of his game.

And then there’s the slider. Acevedo’s slider is a staggeringly inconsistent offering, in terms of both its velocity and shape. The discrepancy may be the fact that most scouts label the pitch as a slider, whereas Acevedo calls it a curve – so it may be a classification error of a sort. At its best, the pitch sits in the mid-to-upper 80s, with a sharp break that is closer to a cutter than it is a curveball. As is the case with his fastball and change-up, Acevedo consistently throws the pitch for strikes – it just doesn’t always look the same.

There are questions about his ability to command his offerings, due to his big velocity and bigger limbs, but he has made steady progress throughout his professional career. It’s the typical ‘command vs. control’ issue, but it’s promising to see Acevedo hitting triple-digits and maintaining sterling walk rates.

It’s also important to note that Acevedo does a surprisingly good job of repeating his delivery. He can get unbalanced at times, especially late in games, but his mechanics are far more advanced than most pitchers of his size and age – comparing his delivery to that of Dellin Betances at the same age, for example, is night and day. Nobody would call his mechanics perfect, yet there is room for optimism here.

2017 Outlook

If the Yankees follow their usual M.O., Acevedo will likely head back to Tampa to open the 2017 season. However, with continued success and a fewer nagging injuries, I wouldn’t be shocked if he ended up at Double-A Trenton by Memorial Day. Acevedo, James Kaprielian, and Justus Sheffield could spend time in the same rotation this season (probably at Double-A), which would be an absolute blast.

My Take

Acevedo has several hurdles to overcome to reach ceiling, which may well be as a second or third starter. The fastball/change-up combination, above-average control, and mostly strong mechanics are encouraging, as is his ability to shake-off rust. However, his lack of a third pitch and injury history – even if his arm has been mostly fine since he returned to action in 2014 – is disconcerting. And, for that, he’s a divisive prospect, as evidenced by his ranking 15th on Mike’s Preseason Top 30 Yankees prospects, and 79th on John Sickels’ Top 200 MLB prospects list.

In short, there’s massive boom or bust potential here. I’d give him every opportunity to start, and rest assured that he has the tools to be a dynamic reliever if it comes to that.

Even without many lefty power hitters, the Yankees will still be able to take advantage of the short porch

Carter. (Dustin Bradford/Getty)
Carter. (Dustin Bradford/Getty)

Once the new Yankee Stadium opened and it became clear the short right field porch was even shorter than it had been at the old ballpark, the Yankees started to build their roster around left-handed pull hitters. I mean, they’d always done that, but there was an increased emphasis for sure. It made complete sense too. You tailor your roster to your ballpark since that’s where you play the majority of your games. Every team does it.

The Yankees sought left-handed pull hitters whenever possible. When they needed a short-term designated hitter, they signed guys like Nick Johnson and Raul Ibanez and Travis Hafner. Filling out the bench? They brought in Kelly Johnson and Eric Chavez. Brian McCann‘s pull power from the left side of the plate was one of the biggest reasons the Yankees signed him. No doubt about it.

At the moment the Yankees have three left-handed hitters in their projected 2017 lineup: Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Didi Gregorius. Greg Bird can make it four should he win the first base job in Spring Training, and he’s the only one of those four you’d truly consider as a power hitter, right? Gregorius hit 20 homers last season and that was awesome, but I don’t think anyone is counting on him to be a big run producer going forward.

The Yankees actually have more power from the right side of the plate right now. Chris Carter, who will play first base on the days Bird does not, smacked 41 home runs last year. He’s hit the eighth most homers in baseball since 2014. Gary Sanchez, Matt Holliday, and Starlin Castro all topped 20 homers in 2016. Sanchez and Holliday didn’t even play full seasons. Aaron Judge hit 23 homers in 120 games between Triple-A and MLB.

For the first time in as long as I can remember, the Yankees lineup leans towards the right side of the plate. Go back throughout history and most successful Yankees teams had big lefty bats, from Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig to Reggie Jackson and Graig Nettles and Chris Chambliss to Paul O’Neill and Tino Martinez. Left-handed power and patience is the franchise’s trademark. That isn’t the case so much right now.

“The power is not prevalent from the left side. That is the way the dominoes have shaken out,” said Brian Cashman to Joel Sherman recently. “There is no think-tank, philosophical change to get away from lefty power. It is how it has shaken out as we tried to upgrade each individual position.”

If the Yankees wanted lefty power, they could have added it this offseason. They could have brought in Pedro Alvarez and Brandon Moss instead of Holliday and Carter, for example. Or maybe Adam Lind and Luis Valbuena. There were left-handed pull hitters on the market this winter waiting to be signed. The Yankees went righty instead of lefty, probably because Holliday is a better pure hitter than those guys and Carter has more power than all of them.

The team’s lack of left-handed power — Carter hit more homers than Gardner, Ellsbury, and Gregorius (and Bird) combined in 2016 (41 to 36) — does not mean the Yankees will be unable to take advantage of Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch in 2017. Last year we saw Castro drive the ball to right field with authority. Holliday and Carter have been doing it for years as well. Check out their line drive and fly ball rates by direction from 2014-16:

LD+FB% to Pull LD+FB% to Middle LD+FB% to Oppo
Carter 51.8% 80.0% 90.1%
Castro 31.3% 51.6% 74.5%
Holliday 33.9% 54.3% 77.9%
MLB AVG for RHB 33.7% 35.3% 51.1%

When Carter has hit a ball the other way over the last three seasons, it’s been a fly ball or a line drive more than nine times out of ten. That sounds ridiculous, and it is, but it’s not unheard of. Other top right-handed power hitters like J.D. Martinez (90.1%), Kris Bryant (88.6%), and Mike Trout (88.0%) are in the same neighborhood. The best power hitters are the ones who hit the ball out to all fields.

Castro and Holliday don’t hit as many line drives and fly balls when going the other way as Carter, but they’re still way above the league average for right-handed batters. Roughly three out of every four balls they’ve hit to right field over the last three seasons have been airborne. Want to take advantage of the short porch as a right-handed hitter? You’ve got to get the ball in the air when you go the other way, and Carter, Castro, and Holliday are all very good at it.

(Last year, after Tyler Austin hit his walk-off home run against the Rays, I noted how rare it is for a right-handed batter to hit an opposite field home run on an inside pitch. Only eleven righties had done it up to that point last year, and three are now Yankees: Austin, Carter, and Holliday.)

Holliday. (Jennifer Stewart/Getty)
Holliday. (Jennifer Stewart/Getty)

Now, here’s the rub: those three don’t hit the majority of their batted balls the other way. When they do hit the ball to right field, it tends to be in the air, but like most hitters they mostly hit back up the middle and to the pull side. Since 2014 only 23.0% of Carter’s batted balls were to right field. It was 29.9% for Holliday and 22.5% for Castro. This is important context. It’s not like these three are hitting every other ball to right field. It’s just that when they do go to right field, they often do so in the air. That’s good given the short porch.

During their brief big league cameos last season we saw Sanchez and Austin, as well as Judge, hit home runs to right field. All five of Austin’s big league homers were opposite field shots at Yankee Stadium. Sanchez hit two out to right field and Judge hit one. Their scouting reports coming up as prospects indicated those guys have opposite field power, especially Sanchez and Judge, so what we saw last year wasn’t out of character.

The Yankees aren’t very left-handed at the moment. Their best lefty power hitter is Gregorius by default, though a healthy Bird would take over that title. The good news is the Yankees do have plenty of power from the right side, including several righties who are equipped to take advantage of the short right field porch given their tendency to hit the ball in the air the other way. They’ll be able to use the short porch without all the annoying grounders pulled into the shift.

Open Thread: February 14th Camp Notes

Spring Training has begun. Pitchers and catchers reported to Tampa today — the position players are due to arrive Saturday — and Joe Girardi held his annual start-of-spring press conference this morning. Part of the press conference is above. The rest of the videos are right here. As expected, Girardi all but confirmed Masahiro Tanaka will be the Opening Day starter. That was the only real news from the press conference. Otherwise it was the usual. Here is this year’s first set of camp notes:

  • Dellin Betances has been excused from workouts until his salary situation is resolved. He and the Yankees are scheduled to have their arbitration hearing Friday. The ruling is usually handed down the following day. Next Wednesday, February 22nd, is the mandatory reporting date for players participating in the World Baseball Classic, like Betances. [Brendan Kuty]
  • Luis Severino dropped ten pounds over the winter — the Yankees thought he was too bulky last year, remember — and acknowledged he needs to emphasize his changeup. He’s made a slight change to his mechanics and now breaks his hands closer to his body, which he said helps his changeup. “I came here to be a starter,” said Severino. [Jack Curry, Billy Witz]
  • CC Sabathia is perfectly healthy following his minor offseason knee surgery. It was a routine cleanup procedure that was scheduled well in advance. Sabathia reiterated he intends to continue pitching beyond this season as long as he’s healthy. “If I’m healthy, I’m going to play as long as I can,” he said. [Meredith Marakovits, Curry]
  • Since Chad Jennings is no longer covering the Yankees, we might not get daily reports on who is throwing bullpen sessions and hitting in the cage and whatnot. That’s a shame. Severino and Adam Warren threw live batting practice yesterday, so they’re ahead of schedule. (Warren seems to be ahead of schedule every year.) Tanaka threw a bullpen session. [George King]
  • The Yankees have added righty J.R. Graham and lefty James Reeves to their list of non-roster players, the team announced. I didn’t even realize Graham was still in the organization. I thought he became a minor league free agent after last season. Huh. Anyway, there are now 65 players in big league camp.
  • The Chris Carter signing is still not official — someone will have to be dropped from the 40-man roster to make room for him — but he is in camp and has a locker. He’ll wear No. 48. [Erik Boland]
  • Here are the Spring Training uniform numbers, via Bryan Hoch. Nos. 13, 21, and 25 were not issued. I have no idea what the Yankees are planning to do with No. 21 long-term.
  • Among this year’s guest instructors are Alex Rodriguez, Nick Swisher, Hideki Matsui, Ron Guidry, Willie Randolph, Reggie Jackson, Goose Gossage, Lee Mazzilli, and Stump Merrill. [Hoch]
  • And finally, the renovations at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa are still underway. Here’s a photof the place at the moment, via Mike Mazzeo.

Good to have the camp notes back, isn’t it? They’ll get more exciting in the coming days and weeks, I promise. Anyway, here is tonight’s open thread. Both the Devils and Islanders are playing, and there’s some college basketball on as well. Talk about anything that isn’t religion or politics right here.

Three pitchers and a contract year

(Maddie Meyer/Getty)
(Maddie Meyer/Getty)

The Yankees’ 2017 rotation is on the precipice of change.

The main reason anyone would state that is due to the rebuild/transition and the newfound reliance on young arms. The Yankees will be handing as many as two spots in the 2017 rotation to younger pitchers like Luis Severino or Chad Green, and there are some strong pitching prospects on the way in 2018 and beyond.

Perhaps the biggest potential change will be with the three veteran starters. In an intriguing twist, all three — Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda and CC Sabathia — are in contract seasons of one form or another. However, each faces a different kind of contract year as each step into a crucial season which could decide the next stage of their careers.

The Opt-out

When the Yankees signed Tanaka in 2014, the opt-out at the end of the 2017 season was a long way away. Now, as has been discussed, it will be a major storyline for this entire season.

How could it not be? Tanaka has been undoubtedly the Yankees’ best starter for the last three seasons and will presumably be that again this year. He has established himself as one of the best starters in the American League and just had his most impressive season in terms of combined performance and health. Sure, he may give up one too many home runs every once in a while, but he is a force on the mound and we now know he can get through 200 innings (or 199 2/3 innings, but who’s counting?). The photo above is of him fielding because he’s a strong fielder, a smaller but important aspect of his game.

Tanaka will be 28 years old for the entire 2017 season and turns 29 on Nov. 1, just in time for free agency. For a pitcher in his prime, that is just about the perfect time to hit the market, particularly one that has so few solid starters making it there. Here’s the issue: His elbow could tear at any moment. He has made it through the last two seasons just fine, but it’s a concern for every Yankees fan that Tanaka’s elbow is too fragile to be worth another long-term commitment.

If Tanaka uses his opt-out, he would have to undergo a physical with any team he signs with and that would include a peek at his ole UCL to see whether it is holding up. Is that worth the risk for him? Probably. Most pitchers have some wear and tear with the ligament and it’s not likely to be that much different. He’ll still get a long-term commitment from someone, quite possibly the Yankees, if he stays healthy in 2017, a big if for a pitcher with a partial UCL tear.

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

One more year?

Believe it or not, Sabathia is about to begin his ninth season with the Yankees and his next win will make it so he has more wins with the Yanks than he did with Indians. We are now five seasons removed from his last All-Star appearance and it’s pretty clear the CC of old is not the CC of now. The 36-year-old lefty with eight 200-inning seasons doesn’t seem all that likely to post another one.

The good news is that he’s coming off his best season since that All-Star season in 2012. Shocking to many, he was actually an above-average pitcher for 180 innings in 2017, taking a page out of the Andy Pettitte book of aging gracefully. Using a cutter like his former teammate, Sabathia has regained the ability to get righties out at a decent enough clip after a few years of the platoon advantage destroying him. He’s actually effective and can get through six innings against the toughest of lineups in the AL East.

Similar to Pettitte, Sabathia is on the downside of his career and could be done at any moment. Guys don’t usually go out on top and some just fall apart without a moment’s notice. He’s going year-to-year and whether there is a spot in the rotation for him depends on his ability to keep up his 2016 numbers and hold off the prospects for another year. If CC can provide another year of 30 starts and an ERA around 4.00, he’d be worth another one-year deal, right? He’d have to settle for well less than his current $25 million salary, but that’s to be expected.

Sabathia was raised on the west coast, so perhaps he’d be inclined to go back to the opposite coast in free agency, but he’s lived in the New York area for nearly a decade now and seems to enjoy to his current digs. Another solid season and it’s not hard to see him in pinstripes for his age-37 season as well.

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

The question mark

OK, so what do we expect out of Pineda in 2017? It’s really tough to pin down exactly what the 6-foot-7 righty can provide in his fourth season with the Yankees. Last year, he was the third best out of these three veterans (is it fair to call Pineda a vet now?) with a 4.82 ERA, but his 3.79 FIP was quite solid. In fact, it was his second straight season lagging well behind his FIP (4.37 ERA, 3.34 FIP in 2015).

Basically, Pineda is a sabermetric nightmare. The guy who strikes out opponents at an extremely high clip (best K per 9 in the American League last year) and doesn’t walk many is exactly what teams desire in their starters and what has led to his low FIP. Yet Pineda can’t seem to turn his sterling peripherals into, you know, actual performance. He’ll have games like this one or this one where he puts everything together and is the ace many thought he could be back in 2012. Or he’ll give up hit after hit with shaky command and be pulled five runs into a loss.

It’s not like he doesn’t have the stuff. His fastball-slider combo can be downright unhittable when he’s going. 16 strikeouts unhittable. And his peripherals will have many believing he can turn around his high BABIP numbers and become elite like he was for eight starts in 2014. That turnaround might have to come in another uniform if he can’t pull it off this season.

If the Yankees sell this season – an unlikely possibility with the Steinbrenners not wanting to do so in back-to-back years – Pineda could be nice chip for the Yankees and fetch a couple prospects, even if they’re at a lower level as with the Ivan Nova trade. The most likely scenario is that Pineda is in the Yankees’ rotation all season, for worse or for better.

So what does his future look like? Like Tanaka, he’ll be 28 for the entire 2017 campaign before turning 29 next offseason. Unlike his righty counterpart, he’s looking for his first long-term contract. He’ll earn $7.4 million and will have made over $15 million in his career through the end of this season. However, he certainly will be searching for a long-term deal. He’ll be one of the better pitchers hitting the market, particularly for a team thinking they can turn his strikeout-walk ratio into gold. If he pitches similarly to his 2015-16, he’ll still likely be in line for at least a 3-year, $30 million deal on his lowest end. The pitching market is a seller’s market.

One way or another, this will likely be the last time we see Tanaka, Pineda and Sabathia headline a Yankees rotation. That’s not to say it can’t happen in 2018, but a lot of things would have to break right. Sabathia could be staring down the last season of his career. Tanaka could be heading for greener pastures or for a surgeon’s table. And how do you solve a problem like Pineda?

Last season became the final year of the old guard among the hitters with Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez and Brian McCann, among others, playing their final games as Yankees. I don’t think there will be an overhaul quite like that in the rotation, but as with the stable of prospects on their way from Scranton, it’ll be fascinating to watch how the veterans perform with all eyes on them.

Bird’s shoulder, Severino’s changeup among top storylines for Spring Training

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Today is the first day of the long journey that is the 2017 baseball season. Pitchers and catchers reported to Tampa to open Spring Training today, and with any luck (okay, a lot of luck), the Yankees won’t be done playing until November. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though. There’s a whole baseball season to enjoy first.

This Spring Training, perhaps moreso than any Spring Training in recent memory, will offer some really intriguing storylines. And for once, it’s not because of the latest Alex Rodriguez controversy, or because we’re wondering whether some veteran signed to a huge contract will be healthy and productive. The Yankees will have many of their great prospects in camp and several big league jobs up for grabs.

So, as something of a Spring Training preview, let’s look at what figure to be the most important storylines of Spring Training this year. These are the storylines I think are important, anyway. You don’t need to be told Gary Sanchez‘s sophomore season and Aroldis Chapman‘s return are big deals, right? Right. Here are my most important storylines this spring, in no particular order.

Is Bird’s shoulder healthy?

By all accounts the answer is yes, Bird’s shoulder is healthy. Bryan Hoch posted video of Bird cutting loose and taking batting practice last week. That’s probably not something he would be doing if there was still concern about his shoulder. So I guess the real question is whether Bird has shaken off the rust following his lost season, and gotten back to where he was prior to the surgery one year ago.

The Yankees suddenly have a bonafide first base alternative in Chris Carter, who signed a one-year deal last week. I mean, they always had Tyler Austin and Ji-Man Choi to compete with Bird for the first base job, but Carter represents a more legitimate option. Austin and Choi have proven basically nothing at the MLB level. Carter led the National League in homers last year. For what it’s worth, Bird said all the right thing after the Carter signing.

“I think we’re happy to have (Carter), honestly. It’s another big bat and a good bat. I think he can bring a lot to the table. I’m excited to meet him,” said Bird to Dan Martin last week. “I missed a whole year. I have to prove to them that I can play again and play at a high level and be a quality part of the team.”

How is Judge doing with his new leg kick?

Judge. (Justin K. Aller/Getty)
Judge. (Justin K. Aller/Getty)

We’ve seen several versions of Aaron Judge since 2015. Two years ago he had a relatively small leg kick. Then last year he had a big leg kick. Now he has no leg kick. Judge and the Yankees are still working to find the right lower half mechanics, the mechanics that will allow him to make more contact. Power isn’t a question. Judge has plenty of that. Enough that he can sacrifice some power for contact.

As far as we know, Judge has been working on this new no leg kick setup all offseason. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s 100% comfortable yet and ready to take it into games yet, however. This was always going to be an important Spring Training for Judge anyway. He is going to have to perform well to win the right field job. Now he has to do it while still adjusting to his new lower half mechanics. Hopefully it clicks right away and is a smooth transition.

Is Severino actually throwing his changeup?

The 2016 version of Luis Severino is a harsh reminder that sometimes things go wrong even with the most talented young players. Very, very wrong. Severino was an unmitigated disaster as a starter last year. He really was. We’re talking an 8.50 ERA (5.56 FIP) in 47.1 innings. Yikes. He was electric in 23.1 innings out of the bullpen, which only barely salvaged his season. (Not really.)

Severino basically stopped using his changeup late last year. He averaged 12.2 changeups per start during his debut in 2015, then averaged 13.1 changeups per start in his first eight starts last season, before he hurt his triceps and was later sent down. Then, in his final four starts — this doesn’t count his time in the bullpen — Severino threw 12 changeups total. That won’t work. Not as a starter.

This spring Severino will have to earn a rotation spot — I do think he’s favored to get one, though it’s far from guaranteed — and part of that is showing a willingness to use that changeup. It should be, anyway. If Severino cuts through camp with nothing but fastballs and sliders, how is that a good thing? He needs his changeup to be a successful starter and we should see that pitch plenty in camp.

How long will Kaprielian stick around?

Kaprielian. (Presswire)
Kaprielian. (Presswire)

Last spring the talk was James Kaprielian could make his big league debut later in the 2016 season. A flexor strain put an end to that, but it wasn’t an unrealistic thought in Spring Training. Kaprielian was a non-roster invitee last year and he threw only 3.2 Grapefruit League innings (across two appearances) before being sent to minor league camp. It wasn’t the longest look. Then again, Kaprielian had to prepare for his minor league season.

At this time last year the Yankees were six deep in starters, remember. Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda, Nathan Eovaldi, and Severino were going to be in the rotation. CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova had to compete for the fifth starter’s spot. This year the Yankees have two open spots behind Tanaka, Pineda, and Sabathia. Severino is going to compete for one of those spots with Luis Cessa, Chad Green, and Bryan Mitchell. Possibly Adam Warren too.

The number of Grapefruit League innings the Yankees give Kaprielian this spring could be telling. If it’s another quick two-game, four-inning showing before being reassigned to minor league camp, then it’s business as usual. But, if Kaprielian hangs around a little longer, then it’ll be a pretty good indication the Yankees want to move him through the system quickly. He’ll get to spend more time with the big leagues coaches in the spring that way.

Is Girardi really going to change the top of the lineup?

Last month Brian Cashman acknowledged the Yankees have discussed breaking up Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury atop the lineup since last season. Ultimately, it will be Joe Girardi‘s call, he said. “I think Joe’s going to get a better feel when he sees everything in camp — if it’s all healthy — and who’s best for that two-hole, then where’s the best guy slot after that. We’ll see how it plays,” said the GM.

Spring Training lineups are not designed to win the game. The veteran players bat high in the order so they can get their three at-bats and head home. It’s not until later in the spring, when the regulars play complete games and back-to-back days, that we start to get an idea of how the regular season lineup will shake out. The Yankees have so many young players and new faces that the lineup is kinda up in the air. Been a while since that was the case.

Anyway, my guess is Girardi will start the season with Gardner and Ellsbury batting first and second in whatever order. That’s the easiest thing to do. It won’t ruffle any feathers and it’ll delay any action, which might not even be necessary. But, if Girardi is truly willing to break up his two veteran leadoff guys, we should see it happen at some point in camp, particularly later in March when the lineup begins to look like the actual regular season lineup.